NEW YORK — For many, 9/11 is characterized by a televised reading of the names of the dead at Ground Zero. But for those looking for answers in what’s left of the World Trade Center rubble, the words on TV are empty promises in a tragedy still unfolding.
Survivors struggle with broken lives and jobs lost due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Others try to let go of anger: their loved ones ended up in a tumble of broken wreckage in a landfill on Staten Island, left to endure rain, snow and wind. Now the remains sit in a museum, in a private area open only to victims' family members, not far from where curious tourists buy trinkets at a souvenir shop.
Staffers at the medical examiner’s office still work to identify remains that turned up as recently as 2013. Families of 1,113 of the 2,753 who died still have no biological confirmation of death, according to New York’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
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“Someone says to you, ‘Tough it up, kid. Move on. The person died 15 years ago,’“ says Arnold Korotkin, 71, a Montclair, N.J., sociologist and creator of a massive 9/11 listserv. “Forty to 50% of the families didn’t have any body parts returned to them. Only a small percentage had an entire body returned to them. Sometimes, it was just a wedding ring with a finger, or a jawbone with teeth.”
“This isn’t over,” Korotkin adds. “The wound heals and every Sept. 11 the scab gets taken off for a moment.”
Many ongoing issues still swirl around survivors and families. Among them: what role Saudi Arabia may have played in the terror attacks and 28 classified pages of a federal document that some lawmakers say includes a smoking gun; the inclusion of more cancers in insurance coverage for first responders; the treatment of remains.
"I was paranoid," retired police Sgt. Dennis Frederick said of the years immediately following 9/11 and his ongoing battle with PTSD. "I thought people were trying to injure me, trying to hurt me. I'd have rage attacks. I was like a loaded gun when I was walking around in public. It was a shame. I was a danger to others. I was close to being hospitalized because I was such a danger to myself and others."
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Frederick, retired from the Port Authority Police Department, already was struggling with PTSD and working a desk job when a plane struck tower one — the North Tower — of the World Trade Center.
Until that moment, Frederick’s professional life was one traumatic situation after another. He’d worked as a social worker in a children’s shelter, caught war criminals as a member of the U.S. Air Force elite Special Forces Unit, and joined the Port Authority Police Department in 1980, only to see his partner get fatally shot a few months later. He often was the first person at the scene when someone was hit by a train and was one of the first responders in 1993 when terrorists blew up a truck bomb at the World Trade Center, killing six people.
By 2001, he’d reached a point where he was often paranoid, could not always understand reality and drank too much. The department took his weapon and assigned him to desk duty in Jersey City, N.J.
In his autobiographical Kindle book The Hollow Man, which recounts his experiences on Sept. 11, Frederick, 64, tells of a police officer who has lost his courage. But Frederick, who lives in Little Egg Harbor on the Jersey Shore with his wife, Nancy, wrote that he felt that he returned to his old self when he had to think on his feet that day.
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On the morning of Sept. 11, a work colleague told Frederick and his coworkers that a plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. They got in a car and made the quick trip over to lower Manhattan. Frederick, familiar with the complex because of the years he was based there, directed the others. He ran up the steps of Tower One, directing people down the stairs. As the smoke and confusion grew, he heard a thunderous sound and the building shook. He learned that a plane had struck the second tower. He and his colleagues assumed they were about to die.
Frederick carried a heavyset woman struggling with asthma on his back for several flights. Outside, he saw bodies on the ground that looked as if they had exploded. They reminded him of the people he used to see who’d been hit by trains. These were the people who’d jumped to their deaths to avoid being burned alive.
Frederick looked up and saw a huge piece of concrete coming his way. Tower One was coming down. He rolled under a fire truck — the same one that today is in the Sept. 11 museum. While under there, he felt thousands of souls moving through him. He thought he’d died, then realized he had not.
Frederick entered One World Trade Center with seven other officers.
"They were on a different mission," Frederick said. "They went some place else. I came back down. "
Frederick is the only one of his team who survived.
Today, he is living on disability benefits and rarely leaves the house. A new therapy dog helps him with trips up to five miles away. He spends his days in his garage, a place where he feels safe, watching "Gunsmoke" and other Westerns on television. He enters the house to make his own meals, then retreats back to the garage to eat them. He sleeps there a couple of nights a week.
"I stayed in my garage for about eight years working on furniture and reading books," Frederick said, describing the intense first years after the terror attacks. "I got dirty until the point where I couldn't stand myself anymore, then I'd get changed and stay in the garage another day or two. The first eight years were pretty bad."
“He really doesn’t have the kind of life that anybody would want,” added his wife, Nancy Frederick, 58.
Said the retired sergeant on why he likes the garage: "Mostly the anonymity of being by myself, the ability to be by myself and the isolation."
The situation has stressed the relationship of the couple, who were dating only a couple of months when the Twin Towers came down. They married a year ago.
“He’s just to me the smartest man I ever met and honestly what’s kept us together is the love we have for each other,” Nancy Frederick said. “You don’t leave a sick person,” she added.
For Diane Horning of Scotch Plains, N.J., a big part of her struggle is letting go of anger.
Horning’s son, Matthew, was a data management specialist who worked at Marsh & McLellan, a financial services firm on the 95th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The 26-year-old was smart, humble, personable and planned to propose to his girlfriend, according to published profiles on him.
Like many of the nearly 3,000 who died when the World Trade Center collapsed, it is believed that the city carted off his remains to the now-closed Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, “sitting on top of dirty diapers,” Diane Horning said.
Horning led a now-defunct group called WTC Families for a Proper Burial and the members — loved ones of those who died — lobbied for a permanent resting place for the remains where they could honor their loved ones. The group hired engineers to come up with several proposed sites, but former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg would have none of it, Horning recounted.
“He said, ‘I don’t think burial is important,’“ Horning recalled of a meeting between her group and the mayor. “He said, ‘I only visited my father’s grave once. I intend to give my body to science.’"
Bloomberg’s media representative did not respond to a request for an interview.
Diane Horning, like other loved ones of those who died, is incensed that remains have been taken to a permanent, private area within the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. Loved ones have been told they may remember the dead from a private reflection room closed to the public, but Horning and others are offended by the thought of loves ones' remains being part of a tourist attraction.
“We have nothing to say about that stupid museum,” Horning said. “I understand people going to it. I don’t fault them. I will never set foot in it.”
The family of Stephen Siller copes by trying to do good for others through a foundation.
Siller was a 34-year-old husband and father of five who'd just come off-duty in Brooklyn when he learned the first plane hit the World Trade Center. He strapped on 60 pounds worth of gear and ran through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to the towers, saving many and dying there.
Within three months, his family set up the Stephen Sillers Tunnel to Towers Foundation, a nonprofit based in Staten Island that helps first responders, members of the military and their families.
"We consciously decided on this, holding hands, praying and decided that the way to do this was to try to do something positive and something good," Stephen Siller's brother, Frank Siller, said. "We didn't have lofty goals, we just wanted to do something good. God put us on a certain path."
Frank Siller is chairman and CEO of the foundation on a volunteer basis.
Most recently, the foundation paid off the mortgages for the families of two police officers fatally shot in Brooklyn in December 2014.
"I always say, 'You're still making a difference, Steve,' " said Frank Siller, 63, of Staten Island, N.Y. "That's the feeling that I wish everybody could have."
On Sept. 11, he'll visit Ground Zero before the sun rises and then will visit with his family.
For the Hornings, Sept. 11 is spent in various ways. Some years, the couple stays at home and do their best to avoid all the media. Other years, they visit their daughter, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area and attend the memorial ceremony at the Pentagon. Sometimes, they take part in a small ceremony in their New Jersey community.
She is working to release the angst, she said.
“If I didn’t let some of it leave my brain, I would be nonfunctional,” Diane Horning said. “There was a time when I wasn’t functioning because of this.”
Follow Melanie Eversley on Twitter: @MelanieEversley